Legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requiring medical providers who operate mammogram machines to post notices of violations is winning accolades from doctors and organizations involved in breast cancer research.
Senate Bill (SB) 148, authored by state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, was signed by the governor in October.
“This bill is for our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, sisters and countless other women,” Oropeza said. “I’m grateful Gov. Schwarzenegger recognized the need for SB 148.”
According to the American Cancer Society and the Breast Cancer Fund, approximately one in eight women will develop breast cancer. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women after lung cancer.
Breast cancer is also the leading cause of cancer death in Latinas in the United States.
Oropeza, who is a liver cancer survivor, first learned of the potential problems associated with some mammogram machines after hearing from constituents and later during a routine breast examination.
“I was curious, so I asked the radiologist for the latest inspection report,” the senator remembered in an interview with Oprah Magazine, a publication founded by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. “I was told it wasn’t available. I knew that they didn’t have to post it, but they did have to tell you.
“That’s when it hit me, ‘we need to do a lot here.’”
According to the National Cancer Institute, a properly working mammogram machine, under the best of circumstances, will not detect up to 20 percent of cancers.
After the senator’s own experience with the lack of an inspection notice at her doctor’s office and a subsequent investigation by a Los Angeles television station determined that 92 area mammography facilities had failed their inspection, Oropeza decided that she had to take action, said Tomasa Due“as, Oropeza’s legislative aide.
“You would think that when you go to one of these facilities, you would expect to see the report posted,” Due“as said. “When we heard that so many facilities had failed their inspections and that they were not posting the results, that really raised a lot of red flags for us.”
Oropeza’s bill comes on the heels of an incendiary national debate that emerged last month after recommendations from a federal health task force contradicted previous data surrounding the use of mammograms and at what ages women should undergo breast examinations.
On November 16th, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force indicated that routine breast cancer screenings for women under the age of 50 were not necessary. The group recommended that women between the ages of 40 and 49 who are at high risk for breast cancer ask their doctor about the best time to start regular, annual mammography screening.
Dr. Alice Chung, assistant director of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Breast Center at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, says that she heard from a number of patients who were concerned about the task force’s study.
“Every patient that I saw was very confused,” Chung recalled. “There was a lot of anxiety about the report.”
Otis W. Brawley, M.D., the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, rebutted the government study’s assertions.
“The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual screening using mammography and clinical breast examin- ation for all women beginning at age 40,” Brawley said in a statement shortly after the government report was released.
Like Chung, concerned women also contacted Susan G. Komen For The Cure, a nonprofit organization that is widely regarded as the largest breast cancer charity and advocacy group in the world, after the government study was made public.
“We heard from women from across Los Angeles County,” said Deb Weintraub, Komen’s West Los Angeles director of mission programs. “We were really disappointed when we learned about the task force’s results, and we obviously disagree with them.”
Chung recommends to her patients that women have regular screenings at the age of 40, and five to ten years earlier if the patient has a family history of breast cancer.
“Only 20-25 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease,” the doctor noted.
Chung was baffled when she learned what the government study had recommended.
“I didn’t understand why anyone would want to harm a woman’s chance to detect breast cancer,” she said. “We know that pap smears can be effective in detecting cervical cancer, and we also know that there is overwhelming data that show that mammographies detect early stages of breast cancer.”
Weintraub also pointed to research that indicated how early detection and prevention techniques have saved women’s lives.
“Mammographies are the best tool for breast cancer screening,” she said.
Komen said that Saint John’s conducts periodic inspections of its mammography machines, which are federally mandated by the Mammography Quality Standards Act.
Komen supports a number of community grant programs, nationally and locally. One community partner is the Venice Family Clinic, which in addition to a variety of medical and dental services, provides mammograms and breast cancer screenings to low-income patients on the Westside, said a clinic spokesman.
Both Weintraub and Chung saw a silver lining in the government task force report.
“There’s been a lot of media attention, and women are becoming more inquisitive about their health,” Chung said.
“This has presented an opportunity to open up dialogue about new and better screening techniques and to reach those underserved populations that are uninsured or underinsured,” she stated.
The doctor said that organizations like Komen have also played a large role in more women surviving breast cancer.
“They have been very instrumental in bring more awareness to the general population,” she said.
Komen did not take a position on SB 148.
“But we think that it is a good opportunity for women to learn about the machines that are being used to diagnose their health,” said Weintraub.
Weintraub said that women who want additional information about the breast cancer screening can visit www.komenlacounty.org/.
SB 148 will officially be enacted on January 1st.
Due“as said SB 148 is a little more personal than most bills for Oropeza, due to her earlier battle with cancer.
“I know that as someone who advocates that women get regular screenings, who is concerned about women’s health and is a cancer survivor, this bill does have extra special significance for the senator,” she said.